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Film Review

Pan's Labyrinth

(January 2, 2007) Most Americans' sense of the Spanish Civil War is only from Picasso's Guernica. It was a violent, brutal four year conflict that resulted in Franco's 35 year fascist dictatorship, until his death in 1975. Half a million people died (200,000 in combat) including 100,000 that were executed by the fascists after the war. This in a country of only 24 million people. The trauma and scars are still there, as evidenced by the reluctance of older generation Spaniards to speak of the era when we were there last summer. A number of buildings in Barcelona and Madrid still bear shrapnel scars. But Spain has blossomed since Franco's death, and Spanish artists are beginning to deal with that era, particularly through films.

Guillermo de Toro, who mixed reality with fantasy in his The Devil's Backbone (2001), a ghost story set in an isolated orphanage during the Civil War, has used the same mix in Pan's Labyrinth. Here he tells two stories, one of an underground gothic fantasy world, and the other a look into darkness, set in Spain in 1944. The two are connected by a young girl, Ofelia, who has been caught in the aftermath of the Civil War, and imagines another, parallel world, nearly as frightening, with fairies, fauns, and monsters. In the upper world there are also monsters, especially the sadistic captain Vidal, who has married Ofelia's widowed mother in order to have a son. He barely tolerates Ofelia and her mother. He has set up a headquarters in a an old mill in a dense forest north of Madrid to fight remnants of the Republican Army who are still resisting. And forced his ailing pregnant wife, Ofelia's mother, to be with him so that his son (he believes) can be born with his father. She has a difficult pregnancy and must stay in bed. The captain begins to fight the guerrillas, and soon Ofelia is visited at night by a praying mantis that undergoes an amazing transformation, and becomes her guide to the underworld. A strong, capable, but severe woman, Mercedes, becomes caregiver to Ofelia's and her mother. And Ofelia begins her journeys into both worlds. There is much much more to be said, but I don't want to reveal the many surprises.

Del Toro's story is very dark, powerful, and mesmerizing. He has taken a child's fairy tale and used it as a black metaphor of the Franco regime. In fact this is an adult horror story. There is a great deal of brutality and graphic violence, but appropriate in the service of the story. I am normally not a fan of computer animated scenes, but here they work, and work well. The acting is uniformly outstanding with Sergi Lopez playing the captain, Maribel Verdu (starred in Y Tu Mama Tambien) plays Mercedes, and a 12 year old Ivana Baquero plays Ofelia. All are brilliant, particularly Baquero. The cinematography is also outstanding. Pan's Labyrinth is unlike any other film that I have seen, and is a tribute to del Toro's extraordinary imagination and skill as a filmmaker. It has won many awards in Europe and will surely be a contender for best foreign film. I loved it; a great start to the New Year. Definitely see this one in a theater. Playing at the Embarcadero.

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